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I think it’s fair to say that these days’ health professionals are pretty good at giving out information about reducing the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), or cot death, as it used to be known.

Reducing the risk of SIDS

It’s common knowledge that safe sleep for babies means as parents we should:

  • Place our babies on their backs to sleep
  • Keep our babies in our bedroom with us until they are at least 6 months of age
  • Not smoke, either in pregnancy or in the same room as our babies
  • Not share share a bed with our babies if we have been drinking alcohol, smoking or taking drugs
  • Never sleep with our babies on on a sofa or armchair
  • Make sure our babies aren’t too hot or cold, and that their heads are uncovered
  • Place our babies in their cots, with  their feet almost touching the bottom end
  • Be breastfeeding, if possible.

Although we may be better at talking about SIDS, did you know that it continues to be the leading cause of death for infants aged between one month and one year old? In the UK we still have 1:3,300 unexplained infant deaths.

Safe sleep practice isn’t always the easiest option

It’s tough for us Brits to get that something like this may happen to our babies. I used to send women home following their birth with all the correct information about safe sleep; feeling like I’d done my duty by making sure they had their leaflet (does anyone actually read the leaflets we’re given??). But how do these guidelines compare to the reality of having a newborn baby at home, feeling exhausted and trying just about anything to get a little bit of sleep?

My reality was two year old twins and a newborn, Rosie, who was a very settled baby. Well, very settled if she was snuggled up next to me, firmly attached to my breast. I’m embarrassed to say that it only took about four nights before I flipped her onto her tummy and realised she settled like a dream and only woke for feeds. I was so exhausted that in that moment, my sleep was more important than her safety. Obviously I made all the excuses under the sun. Like, her sleep environment was safe; I made sure she didn’t over heat; I’m a non-smoker; I was breastfeeding; and, as she was sleeping right next to me I’d definitely know if there was a problem. Right? Nope, the reality is that babies are six times more at risk of SIDS if they sleep on their front, than when placed on their back.

How many parents find having our babies sharing the same room as us at night has such a negative impact on our sleep, that before the recommended six months is up we move them into their own room? And yet, did you know that sharing a room with your baby can halve the risk of SIDS?

Since the Back to Sleep campaign launched in 1991, instances of SIDS reduced by 85%. But other causes of infant deaths have increased. For example, accidental deaths from falling asleep with your baby on a sofa. This can increase the chance of SIDS by up to 50 times!

This is a tough one. Most of the time we don’t plan to fall asleep with our babies on sofas, armchairs, or sat up in bed. But before you know it,  you wake up not knowing where you are and thank god that your baby is sleeping happily, enjoying having that lovely cuddle with you (in most cases). It may be that you take your baby out of the bedroom to feed, allowing your partner to get some sleep before work the next day, and before you know it you’ve fallen asleep on the sofa. So, often it’s not an intended nap but when you’re exhausted it’s inevitable. Sadly, you’re not going to realise that your baby has got itself wedged in cushions or against the sofa before it’s too late.

Bed sharing with your baby

Research shows that a fifth of all UK babies spend at least part of the night sleeping in bed with one, or both parents and I’m sure that a lot of this bed-sharing is accidental. The amount of nights my husband and I would drag our twins into bed to feed them and then wake up a couple of hours later, slumped down in the bed all snoozing together. I often chat with women about co-sleeping, who laugh and say that they’re definitely not going down that route with their baby – I can assure you they probably do in reality, just maybe not intentionally.

Believe me, I’m not here to make you all feel guilty for the little things (we all do) that help you cope with your new life with a baby – it’s tough! But there are some simple things you can do, that keep your baby safe and allow you to get some sleep. If you’re going to bring your baby into bed to feed, accept that you may fall asleep and do the following:

  • Make sure your baby has it’s own blanket and is not at risk in being covered with your duvet
  • Feed your baby lying down, spooning around your baby
  • Make sure that your baby does not lie between you and your partner, but on the outside of the bed. Ensure there is no way that they can fall out of bed or become trapped between the mattress and the wall. Co-sleeper cots are a great solution for this
  • Lie your baby on its back, rather than its side or front, if they fall asleep
  • Do not lie your baby on a pillow if they are less than one year
  • It is not safe to co-sleep with your baby if they are formula fed

Other things to think about

If you are formula feeding your baby it is probably safer to get out of bed. Feed your baby in a chair which you’re unlikely to fall asleep in, and go back to bed afterwards.

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS, or cot death) is perhaps the most well known of these, but sleep related accidental deaths and injuries also happen, and non-accidental harm can occur to infants in sleep-related settings. Lack of sleep related to caring for a baby can also affect parents’ health, particularly in the case of depression and accidents.

If possible, take any opportunity in the day to sleep when your baby sleeps. I appreciate this is sometimes easier said than done! But if it’s a choice of ironing or sleep…I’d go with the latter! If you’re having a cuddle with your baby on the sofa and start feeling tired (pretty likely), take them up to bed and lie down with them instead. Or keep a Moses basket in the sitting room, so you can both have a nap.

It’s also a really good idea to ask family and friends to take your baby for walks, or entertain them whilst you quickly get a power-nap. I remember my parents and in-laws taking my girls for endless walks whilst I caught up with sleep. I also had great mates who allowed me to pitch up to their houses, dump the babies on them, and use their spare bed to catch up on some sleep! It’s really important in the early days to communicate your needs with your family and friends – rather than just accepting the help they offer, which may not be what you need in that moment. Remember, this is shortlived, it won’t be long until life has settled and you’re getting more sleep.

If you’d like more information about safe sleep, check out the Lullaby Trust’s website www.lullabytrust.org.uk.

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